DYO – Using empathy to engage with donors and improve your fundraising

Fundraising research continues to be helpful to fundraisers, but it can also be overwhelming in that it demonstrates the complex nature of giving and donor engagement. For example, studies show that past donation behaviour drives both donation decisions and generosity. Socio-demographic variables such as income, age and gender influence giving. Emotionally laden story telling can be very persuasive but requires strong ethics. Recommendations from other donors, social stimuli and positive social role modelling, are also predictors of whether people give and how much.

These are all very helpful insights about donors and charitable giving, but they fall short of helping an individual organisation understand what might motivate people to give to their specific organisation, cause or campaign. A possible solution might be to use empathy more intentionally when designing strategies to build more effective and stronger donor relationships.

Empathy is described as an attribute that helps you sense and understand another person’s feelings, needs or perspective. It is a complex phenomenon and has been studied extensively with the research establishing that empathy and empathic concern are typically beneficial, even therapeutic, for both giver and receiver. For this reason, it is not just psychologists and care givers who have realised that empathy is important to their work. Indeed, many disciplines such as marketing, engineering, technology and health are all using empathy and empathic design to improve policy and practices, products and services. This is supported by researchers such as David Teece who explains that the chances of organisational success are greater when a good understanding of stakeholder needs is used to create customer focused value creation.

Empathy has been established as crucial for those people using the Design Thinking process, which is a methodology adopted by some innovators and product designers to find solutions to complex problems. A simple definition of Design Thinking, which incorporates Human-Centred Design, is difficult to find, so I like to explain it as using empathy to understand the world and complex problems from multiple perspectives, in order to find human-centred solutions.

Design Thinking is also being adopted by social planners and entrepreneurs, policy makers, funders, and charitable organisations who are using the approach to improve collaboration and co-design between sectors and stakeholders including donors and beneficiaries. They are using Design Thinking tools to gain greater deeper insight into social and organisational challenges in order to identify more creative and innovative solutions.

A great example comes from The San Francisco Opera. Design Thinking was embraced and a creative exercise helped gain empathy with younger people who had never been to the Opera. They used what they learned to develop ways to engage new audiences and thereby increase their audience numbers and revenue.

Creating an Empathy Map

Fundraisers can empathise with donors and prospective donors by using a Design Thinking tool called an Empathy Map.

Empathy maps assist you to uncover and make sense of what donors think, feel, say and do. Using this tool builds understanding of how donors are reacting to and engaging with your organisation, cause, appeals and activities.

It is best to create the map with your team (not just your fundraising team), experts, and of course donors themselves. Further research such as donor interviews, focus groups or surveys can add to your insights and challenge your biases and assumptions.

Depending on what you are aiming to achieve, the goal of this empathy exercise is to start creatively thinking of changes and innovations that you and your organisation needs to make to engage, communicate and serve your donors better. You will be thinking from a donor-centric viewpoint, and you can then test if your changes build more effective and stronger donor relationships.

If you would like to know more about using Design Thinking there are plenty of helpful internet resources and books. Or, you can contact QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies (ACPNS) to learn about our courses.

Read more of the Developing Your Organisation series

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Three Key Questions to Ask Before Starting a Social Enterprise by Dr Craig Furneaux

How leaders can help their team become resilient when stress and change are the norm by Dr Ruth Knight 

Three questions nonprofits should be asking themselves in 2019 by Glenn Poole

Four ways to promote financial sustainability for your nonprofit by Dr Mike Booth

Three Great Resources Grantseekers and Fundraisers Should be Tapping Into by Eleni Gill


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